Friday, 16 November 2012

Bundles of Joy

Sarah Massini for Nosy Crow
First of all, I am so excited to finally be able to talk about the fact that Nosy Crow, a children's publisher I was lucky enough to do some work for a few weeks ago, is launching Stories Aloud, a new initiative that bundles digital audio content with their physical picture books.

Here is their blog post about it.

Basically, you open the book, you use your smartphone to scan the QR code and up pops an audio file that can be played alongside the book or listened to on its own. Isn't that brilliant? Isn't that simple? And doesn't it make you wonder why they're one of the only publishers actually willing to do something like this?

I know it does for me.

Bundling's actually something I've been thinking about for quite a while. There's such a disconnect between physical and digital publishing at the moment, and I can't understand why this is the case. Why don't more publishers connect the dots? Why, in short, isn't bundling standard?

As you may know, I review for The Bookbag, an excellent arrangement which means that I get a new book present in the post almost every week. Recently, I picked Marina Warner's Stranger Magic, and in due course it arrived at Bird HQ.

Now, as I said in my review, Stranger Magic is a beautiful book. Its cover is gorgeous, its illustrations are many and (most importantly of all) almost every word in it is lovely to experience. It's a reference book that I want to keep on my physical shelf, to flick through and pick from at will, free from licensing issues or battery failure or sudden cracked screen disasters. I don't just love the text, I love this physical book.

But Stranger Magic isn't just good. It's also great. How great, you may ask? See for yourself.

What you see
What you get.

It is 774g of purest processed tree. It is back-breakingly, purse-rippingly large. And with that piece of information, you may begin to perceive the problem. I love this book, I love reading this book, but I do not love carrying this book all the way up to Manchester and back in 24 hours (note: this happened).

Stop being stupid, Robin. Buy a Kindle!

Ah yes, but here's the thing. I have the physical book. Buying an entirely separate ebook edition, although it exists, seems a bit redundant now. But what if (and this is a question that will not stop plaguing me) the physical book and the ebook had arrived at my house in a single package?

Now, you can sort of do this already. Go onto Amazon and you'll see Stranger Magic: the real thing and Stranger Magic: the digital file nestling up against each other on the search page.

But what there isn't is any notion that you might want to buy both versions together, or that you might be offered a discount for doing so. And if you go into a bookstore, although some may have stands where you can buy ebook readers, there is likewise no way to buy, for a small additional fee, the companion ebook version of the new hardback you just purchased. And I CANNOT work out why not. I mean, it is driving me crazy.

An ebook and a physical book are, after all, built for different situations. Real books are for curling up with on a sofa or in bed, for looking at with the joy of successful acquisition, for storing and keeping and coming back to twenty years later. Ebooks are pared-down bits of pure function, the same words in portable form. They don't really overlap, and they're not really the same product. So why can't they be seen as complimentary rather than in conflict? One won't win. There is no winning. There is just (and I say this with my aspiring publisher's hat on) revenue that you make, and revenue that you don't.

We all know that the music industry has screwed up. At this stage, the internet is simply kicking away at what is left of its shrivelled husk. But publishing doesn't have to go that way. It still has time to jump on that digital bandwagon and ride it like the new money-making opportunity it is. More people are reading than ever before. Book crazes are bigger pheonomena than they ever were before. Yes, the 99p ebook model is pretty awful. But what if you try to establish the notion that all readers should buy ebooks in addition to their physical copies?

What I am saying is, why aren't we bundling physical and digital content as standard?

Now, there is nothing about this idea that means that it couldn't be rolled out, say, tomorrow. We have all the technology involved. We have ebooks, we have physical books, we have printers to create QR codes or individual ebook codes. I have a dream in which every physical book comes with some sort of scratch-away-to-reveal-the-code box or the equivalent (bearing in mind that putting the code in an easily readable place would probably create a whole new breed of bookshop theft), but I don't see why booksellers couldn't just ask customers at the till point if they'd like to pay £1 or £2 more to get the ebook version of their purchase as well, and then hand them a code from a box of them behind the desk. Or the code could be printed on the receipt... none of this is quite right, yet, but my point is that these are the kind of details that could be worked out as you go.

The idea is to level the playing field between traditional booksellers and Amazon and the other internet giants in terms of the content they offer, and to reach a large new bookloving demographic who don't currently use ebooks because they're being sold as an alternative to their beloved real-world copies.

If any publisher out there likes this idea, or any part of it, I hope you'll steal it. I want you to steal it. (Though of course I'd like you to steal me with it.) Because, you guys, I want a job. I want the industry I love to have a job for me, and other people like me. And I think that this'll only happen if publishers are proactive, and creative, and embrace change instead of behaving as though change has fangs and is here to kill your children.

So I say to you all: bundle up!

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